Reportage. In Intibucá, as well as in the many communities and neighborhoods of Honduras, Berta Cáceres’s life, her words and her commitment to activism continue to be a role model for new generations.

Seven years since Berta Cáceres’s murder, the seeds of her resistance grow

This week marks the seventh anniversary of the death of Berta Cáceres, a leader of the Lenca people.

On March 2, 2017, a hit squad entered her home to kill her. The murder happened between Intibucá and La Esperanza, two settlements that together form the highest-altitude town in Honduras. Here, at 1,700 meters above sea level, Berta had taken part in the founding of the Councils of Indigenous People’s Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) in 1993.

Today, COPINH includes more than 200 indigenous communities and 50 community organizations united by their struggle against capitalism, patriarchy and racism. In addition to her leadership of the Councils, Berta denounced the 2009 coup d’état and fought on the front lines to defend the Gualcarque River from the construction of the Agua Zurca dam in the Rio Blanco community.

The criminal investigation led to the arrest of seven people, identified as material perpetrators of the murder. Together with the hitmen, David Castillo was also arrested, a military intelligence officer and executive of the Desa company, promoter of the Agua Zurca hydroelectric project. According to the reconstruction of the events by the prosecutor’s office, Castillo used his resources and contacts to monitor Cáceres and the resistance movement against the dam.

According to Berta Zuñiga Cáceres, Berta Cáceres’ daughter and current general coordinator of COPINH, one shouldn’t put too much faith in the judicial process: “We have already seen in Honduras what happened with other trials where people are convicted, go to the appeals court and then get released,” she says. Moreover, some of those behind the murder remain unpunished to this day. These include members of the Atala Zablah family, who have shares in financial institutions, soccer teams and real estate companies and who were on Desa’s board of directors.

According to Berta’s daughter, the Atala Zablah family “financed the repression, made all the decisions to try to stop the struggles of the community of Río Blanco and COPINH, and are, in fact, the principals who have gone unpunished” in the case of Berta’s murder. She also points out that the Dutch bank FMO, co-financier of the Agua Zurca project, wired more than $1 million to the Desa company just days before Berta’s murder. Investors in the Agua Zurca dam, promoted by Desa and the Chinese company Sinohydro, also include the Finnish bank FinnFund and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIA).

“This is not an exception, it is what many companies, financial institutions, even development banks in Europe and other parts of the global north are doing. It is a pattern we see in many indigenous communities that are threatened by extractive projects that plunder their resources,” denounces Berta Zuñiga Cáceres, “and this is an area of work that COPINH is active in: denouncing the international actors involved.”

The Rio Blanco community, which has been resisting the construction of the Agua Zurca project for years, has been suffering from attacks, provocations, legal persecution, surveillance and infiltration. In 2013, community leader and COPINH member Thomas García was shot and killed by the army in its intervention to break up a community strike that was preventing the companies from accessing the Gualcarque River area. Today, the concession for the construction of the work is suspended.

“After the murder of Berta Cáceres, the company removed all machinery from the area,” says Dunia Sanchéz, leader of the Rio Blanco community. However, she insists that they shouldn’t let their guard down, because “the project has not yet been cancelled definitively.”

Beyond resistance, COPINH councils and organizations have been working to build up an autonomous and popular form of power starting from the original culture. “For us,” explains the COPINH coordinator, “fighting side by side with communities that defend the rivers and the territory, that reclaim our ancestral forms of organization, means giving material form to our ways of life as an alternative model in which the culture of the Lenca people is of great importance.” According to Berta Zuñiga, it is essential to preserve the memory of the elders because “if the Lenca people lose their identity and lose their relationship with the land, then we have lost the battle against these big companies. We fight because we believe in these other ways of living and are convinced of their value.”

In COPINH’s community organizing process, securing access to the land through the issuance of ancestral title deeds has been crucial. Along with the struggle for the land, COPINH has developed various cooperative manufacturing projects, popular art projects and autonomous communication channels. Agustín Lopez, host of Radio Guarajambala in La Esperanza, explains that there are five COPINH community radio stations that allow them to “inform communities if there are threats and notify them, for example, if a conflict is occurring there.” In addition, thanks to the radio stations, “organizations are informed about what is happening in the country.” Radio is being used as an instrument of popular education.

The current political situation puts popular organizations in a complicated position vis-à-vis the institutions. The term of Xiomara Castro, the first woman to serve as president of Honduras, began on January 27, 2022. Her campaign was characterized by the promotion of progressive values and a focus on the rights of indigenous peoples. However, her leadership has not shied away from Honduran oligarchies, including members of the Atala Zablah family.

In addition, a state of emergency has been in effect since December 2022, with curfews and the military deployed in the poorest areas throughout Honduras. Berta Zuñiga Cáceres explains the contradictions of the new ruling group: “There are some positive aspects. With this government, the persecution directed against organizations like COPINH has decreased. Before, the level of repression was terrifying.”

At the same time, the COPINH coordinator denounced the evictions, repression and territorial conflicts that continue to take place in the face of the passivity of human rights organizations: “Unfortunately, this dynamic has not changed, because the economic model has not changed. And criminal groups like the ones that killed my mother and continue to kill fellow Garifuna people have not yet been dismantled.”

In Intibucá, as well as in the many communities and neighborhoods of Honduras, Berta Cáceres’s life, her words and her commitment to activism continue to be a role model for new generations. Indeed, those who knew her speak of her murder as the sembra de Berta, her “sowing of seeds,” because, instead of putting an end to her struggle, her assassination planted thousands of seeds of rebellion and resistance across the planet.

Despite attempts by institutions to appropriate her figure, Berta’s and COPINH’s struggle continues to destabilize economic elites and challenge their violence. Berta Zuñiga Cáceres, who is continuing the intergenerational legacy of defending her land, is leading a new cycle of resistance: “We feel spurred on to strengthen our struggle against the powers and interest groups that continue to plunder communities.”

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